"Had," One Year Later
by Meg Trast
I begin drafting this on the one-year anniversary of my “bad words” post. A great indication I’ve grown as a writer is I don’t care much for the post I shared back then. It feels stilted, choppy, almost rushed.
Not to toot my own horn, but the post is still full of valuable information, and if you haven’t I highly suggest you check it out. I’m not going to reiterate the points I made before.
The very first post here on Overhaul My Blog pertained to the word “had.” Since its draft over a year ago, I’ve worked with and talked to an array of talented authors, all with unique and valuable opinions on what makes a manuscript “good.” Some of these things we’ve talked about before, like how “technically good” and “great by perception” are two different things. Rather than rehashing old points, I’d like to visit some new angles and talk about exactly why we avoid past-participle in story prose – and help you use it appropriately, lending strength to your story.
As with any hard-and-fast writing “rule,” the most important thing to ask is, “Do I need to break this?” Everything you do in the prose should serve the story. That’s why it’s sometimes okay to start a sentence with a conjunction, or end it with a preposition. Why we allow for “was” and “had” despite them being on our naughty lists. Sentence fragments. All these things, when applied correctly, add value, not detract it.
Some people I’ve worked with are undoubtedly going to feel called out by this post. My important disclaimer is as follows: I’m not singling out or criticizing anyone. Rather, our time spent working through your hads and wass has helped me better understand the subject and given me new ideas and opinions. And you’re not the only one I’ve discussed it with, I promise.
Now then, let’s begin.
In my (year old) example, I gave a scenario and provided a few examples of how the scene might spell out on paper. I attributed these choices to “active voice,” but the truth is “active voice” doesn’t mean “things happening in the present.” It’s simply a shortcut for saying “noun directly performing verb.” Active voice doesn’t always best serve the story – though this is one rule, above all others, I highly encourage authors to stick to. Passive voice allows an element of mystery.
The candlestick was placed in the middle of the table.
By whom? If it’s important the performer of an action remains anonymous, passive voice may serve you.
The candlestick had been placed in the middle of the table.
Now we’re even building a timeline. The “had been” suggests this action was not only performed by a mystery person, but it was performed before your POV character entered the room. Of course, you could maintain active voice and still maintain these mystery elements.
The candlestick sat in the middle of the table.
Shorter, neater, cleaner…and still implies the same as all of the above. Which one is correct? The simple answer: all of them. Whichever structure you use should fit the tone of your book. From personal experience, and in my preference, the third is the *best* option. I like sentences that are clean, and active voice appeals to every part of my brain. But that doesn’t mean what I like or consider “correct” will best suit your story. The most important aspect in this case is to read through and feel it out. Does the sentence flow neatly into the rest of the paragraph? Does it offer some variation in sentence structure? Did I even notice it was passive voice when I read through? All of these questions help you identify one factor: whether the sentence serves your story.
Let’s talk more about had and past participle in general. As with all elements of storytelling, past participle gives us a tool. In this case, it serves to catch the reader up on things that happened outside of their time with the characters. So we know the candlestick is on the table, and in the above versions it happened outside of the POV’s periphery.
But what if the POV character did it?
Sandy had placed the candlestick on the table.
In this case, we’re assuming Sandy is the POV character, and she performed an action before the reader metaphorically arrived on the scene. We can assume that whatever we’re about to tell the reader will happen following that event.
Here is where we run into trouble: past participle events within the timeline of the story you’re telling.
I don’t mean a sentence or two here and there; I mean entire paragraphs forged in past-participle so that you can start your scene in a certain place. Anything that requires you to start the next sentence with, “Now…”
…now she sat and waited.
Not only is the grammar messy on that sentence, it lets the reader know, “Hey, you’re just catching up to this character, not walking through the plot with them.” Which is a point I know I covered back in 2018. I don’t beat you over the head with that point; I think you know what not to do.
So when is it okay to actually use past participle (and, by proxy, “had”)?
One example is such: when you’re recounting something that unfolded before the story’s events. If you’re not telling this part of the story in flashback format (a format whose merit is debated widely in the writing community), it’s good to start the story with “had” so your reader understands this happened outside of the current storyline. The only issue I run into here is the overuse of the word, so make sure you just use it once at the beginning of the paragraph to set the tone. Everything else can be in past-perfect, so long as you close out the story decisively.
It [had] happened on the 4th of May. Her mother had prepared macaroni and cheese – Sandy’s favorite. Sandy [had] set the table, only barely tall enough to reach the cutlery in the drawer. Mother [had] hummed pleasantly as she stirred, and Sandy [had] watched with wide eyes as she [had] spooned macaroni into each delicate, porcelain bowl.
(each [had] is a place you might be tempted to add the word in - don't do it!)
Make sure you end this story and bring us back to the present.
Sandy stared at the old candlestick longingly, almost brought back to those days by its sight alone. The time was not right for such reminiscing. She returned the candlestick to the table.
(Note: in the first draft of this blog, I wrote that Sandy’s mother “had been preparing” macaroni and cheese, and during my first quick readthrough that stuck out. Watch for words you can eliminate!)
I hope you’ve enjoyed this revisit to an old favorite topic of mine! Don’t forget to check out the old blog posts if you haven’t, and you can also watch me ramble about my favorite topics on Overhaul My Vlog.
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